After keynoting Manchester University’s 2015 Peace Week, I stayed on campus for the remainder of the week and weekend. This allowed me to participate with students and campus life. I attended a vigil for the Ethiopian migrants led by the African Student Association, I played Glow-in-the-Dark dodge ball, I was with students during the mandatory lock-down, and I participated in the “slut walk.” The vivacious and kindhearted leader of the Feminist Student Union also participated. Due to the intensity of impact of the following incident during the demonstration, she decided to respond by writing a public article to be published by the school blog (it has yet to appear). Following are her reflections after conversation with me and a few other students. I had a great time on this campus on the banks of the Kopomocano River, and am excited for what this next generation of graduates are bringing into the world!
Culture Shock, Manchester’s Sociology club, hosted a slut walk to raise awareness of slut shaming and victim blaming. “Slut” is an arbitrary definition for a woman who owns her sexuality; [she is autonomous. Sometimes people call a woman who is independent or single-and-powerful a slut.] “Victim blaming” is what often occurs after a person reports being assaulted (sexually or non-sexually)—listeners often do not believe the person, or imply through accusatory statements or questions that the person victimized was somehow to blame for the attack. The purpose of the walk was to bring to attention the fact that the clothing one wears does not indicate consent. We carried signs with phrases such as “Ask before you touch” and “Consent is Sexy”. Consent is a freely given “yes” to being touched by another or interacted with in a particular way (again, sexual or non-sexual). The concept that the clothes one wears indicates consent is destructive and promotes structural and physical violence. While damage occurs in all directions, the overwhelming majority of this violence is done by male-bodied individuals (or groups) to female-bodied individuals.
The walk started at the library steps and went all around campus. Overall it was a positive experience; many acknowledged the importance of this, or if they didn’t understand it, they respectfully watched as the line of people with signs went by. However, there was one controversial incident. When we were walking through the PERC, a man working out looked right at me and aggressively told me to put clothes on and cover up! His tone was not inviting of a conversation and he acted as if my body was disgusting.
He put himself in a position of authority to tell me to put clothes on, rather than interacting with me as an equal, or taking the time to even consider that I (and the men, women, and trans folks with me) may be making an important point for him to consider.
Because I am socialized in the pervasive culture of “victim blaming“, initially I was worried that I did something wrong. I kept asking myself and others if it was my mistake. Did I hear him correctly? Did that verbal violence really just happen? Yes it had. He behaved as if he could tell me how to act, as if he owned a choice that was entirely mine, as if he owned me and my body. His action is an example of modern sexism. If a man walked around campus in a speedo, he would not be told to cover up; people would just think that he was being silly.
Additionally, wearing bikinis is a socially acceptable activity. Though it shouldn’t matter, I was wearing more than the bikini clad individuals who tan on the mall. The problem was obviously not in the clothes I wore. It was the context we were in where patriarchy allows and encourages men to demean, distrust, and talk-down to women. Sarah Thompson, the Executive Director of Christian Peacemaker team gave me some helpful insight to the reaction I got from the individual at the PERC. “It’s not how much men tell women to cover up—whether they say where a full bukra or only cover your knees—it’s just the fact that they feel like they have the authority to do it at all,” She explained that patriarchy and sexism in this culture give female-bodied individuals double messages. Not only do men tell women to “cover up”, but women are constantly bombarded with messages to “take it off” and “show men what you got.” Because of this double standard women constantly face the pressure to dress the way men expect them to dress instead of it being their personal choice of expression and power. Another participant added her frustration with the comments and looks she gets when she runs, wearing clothing that allows her body to perform to the highest level. The slut walk was about reclaiming space to walk, run, dance, and be our full selves by wearing what we want.
Men do not have the authority to tell women how to dress. What a person wears is their business only. If it makes you uncomfortable, take a deep breath and look inside yourself to figure out why this is your problem. This comment made by the man at the PERC is the exact reason why we need to continue raising awareness and putting the end to slut shaming and victim blaming. The walk would not be necessary unless attitudes like the man’s from the PERC did not exist.